When I walked on stage with my lace underwear glowing in the black light, he was sitting there cupping a wad of cash in his right hand with glazed, cocaine eyes and a face so red he must have been nursing the bottle for two days straight.
I got down so I could crawl toward him with my hips swaying left and right, a predator moving past the pole just a few feet away from the railing. Then I sat up, arched my back, and grabbed the pole with my legs spread wide. There was just a thin strip of cloth between the man and what he wanted. He lunged his head forward, and I let him get about a foot away before I shot back, stood up, and twisted around the thick metal bar like a piece of meat on a stick.
“Yeah!” He threw me a twenty-dollar bill.
I could see his eyes getting wider, and the sweat pouring down his forehead.
“You want this?” I teased him.
“Fuck, yeah!” He smacked my butt.
I stood up, wagged my finger, and laughed softly in his face. He reached out and grabbed my ankle so I twisted around and kicked him in the throat with the heel of my sharp stiletto.
“Don’t you ever touch me!”
A large shadow crept out from the side of the bar. “The fuck you think you’re doing?” Mando, the guard, walked up behind him and slapped him upside the head.
“Hey,” the man shot up off his stool and whipped around with his fist spinning through the air. “Listen, motherfucker,” he tripped on the stool next to him and fell down to the ground. “I pay good money to sit here and watch these fine ladies dance”—he stared up at Mando defiantly—”and I don’t need you coming in here and messing up my high.”
Mando picked the man up by the arms.
He thrashed his head back and forth, drool flying out of his mouth. Mando swung him over his shoulder while I watched laughing.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” the man shrieked.
When he got to the door, Mando grabbed him by the ankles and threw him out like a shot put.
“How do you do that?” I asked when he turned around and walked back into the empty bar.
“Spin them around when you throw them like that.”
“You gotta twist them just right.” He sat back down at the bar.
Dancing had nothing to do with sex. It was a hustle.
Onstage, I had to learn how to give just enough to keep the men throwing money at me, and how to draw back when they were getting too close without putting them off.
I wasn’t there to get high or look good in front of the other girls. I danced at Red’s because, with my makeup brush and collection of wigs, I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be.
I had a million faces—the sexy dominatrix, the bad school girl, and of course, the sequined goddess. The men got a peek. They’d swing their heads back and forth like dogs following a piece of meat, but it was just an illusory dream.
That was the fun of it: the thrill of the chase. I was always one step ahead. No man owned me. They couldn’t even touch me because I was never really there. Between the costumes and where I went in my mind when I was on stage, the only real part of me that they saw was what I was willing to show them.
I hopped backstage and began getting undressed. Nobody knew what was really underneath all this makeup and shimmery fabric and expensive wigs except the people backstage. I spent a lot of time making sure of that.
I rubbed my makeup off in an empty stall so nobody could see my real face taking shape. I wasn’t sure why. It just felt like a private thing. The makeup and wigs made me into someone so different sometimes I didn’t even recognize myself. When I was done, I checked the mirror.
My face was white and round, and my eyes were too close together. I was too short and too lumpy in the middle compared to the other girls. The only thing with any aesthetic value was my hair. It was long and dark and flowed around my arms like a sheet of silk.
But that I always kept to myself.
My costumes were a shield. I didn’t like being up there, like a piece of meat swinging around a kebab skewer. I wanted to dance in the city or perform with a traveling troupe. But that wasn’t going to happen in this shit town. I had to get out of there.
I liked to dance at Red’s, and for a long time, I made myself believe that it could be what I needed it to be. But I didn’t like being demeaned by the sewer runoff that streamed in from the city. They took all of the art out of it and made it hard for me to get lost in my act.
Dance is the idea that the intangible can be expressed through movement and brought to life. A dancer has to be able to feel the room, catch the crowd, and tell them a story.
In that sense, dance was a form of literature, one that spoke to the senses. It used rhythm, speed, momentum, and visual displays to paint a picture for the audience. Dancers could evoke suspense and despair just as easily as they could express sexuality. But none of that was happening in this dead-end joint.
Focusing on sex was like painting every canvas black rather than creating a compelling work of art. Sex had no substance, no emotion. It simply was. I could dress it up, put on a beautiful outfit and play with the crowd, but in the end, it was all about one thing: putting me on display so they could get their dicks hard.
And one thing I hated more than anything was being on display.
* * *
It was three in the morning by the time I left, but it was still hot enough that I could feel the heat rising off the pavement. My car was sitting at the other end of the lot near the entrance. Mando usually walked me out, but it was kind of annoying having him hover over me, especially considering the fact that he watched me all night, so I decided to walk to my car myself.
The only sound was the hum of the electrical equipment to the right of the door. When I passed it, I heard something grate against the pavement behind me and I stopped.
I flipped around and scanned the lot. There didn’t seem to be anyone there. I looked down and saw a piece of old newspaper skittering across the pavement. That must have been where the sound came from.
I reached into my bag and felt around in the side pocket, fingering the hard metal revolver. It was there if I needed it. I never did. In fact, I hated carrying it around in my bag. I kept thinking the thing could go off at any time, but it made me feel better knowing that I had something just in case.
I took short, quiet steps past the grated electrical equipment, toward the corner of the building.
“Hey!” The drunk from the bar jumped out from around the corner. He was swaying back and forth while holding a fifth of whiskey, smoking a joint. “You stupid bitch. I told you I’d kill you.”
He dropped the bottle, hunched forward with his head down, and started running at me to try and head butt me. “Ah!”
Just before I stepped aside, I noticed a strip of metal in his hand catching the light. He was holding a knife, and I wasn’t far enough away to get away from it. The man could have easily killed me, so I did the only thing I could think to do and fell backward on the pavement, kicking my legs up into the air.
His hand shot forward, the knife pointing straight at me. I kicked out to stop him, caught him in the chest, and shot up off the ground. He fell backward, so I ran toward him and stared down at his bloated red face. He was swinging the knife wildly but was too drunk to realize where he was putting it.
I lifted my foot and brought it down onto his face with a bloody crack. I turned around and started running toward my car when he screamed, blood gurgling in his throat.
He was still on the ground crawling toward me with a snarl. I had a strong urge to put a bullet in his head just so I could see the contents of his skull spray all over the concrete.
Instead, I turned around and got into my faded white sedan. That’s why I changed faces. There was always a chance that the wrong guy could come in and bash my head in against the pavement. I didn’t want them to see who I was long enough to decide what they were going to do to me.
I whipped out onto the road, tires squealing, and reached into the glove box to grab a cigarette. By the time I had it lit, I was racing past the patchy desert, trying to catch my breath. Sometimes I felt like a little girl who ran away from home, playing a grown up on a stage that she had no business on.
I didn’t feel like I belonged in that club and on that stage, but I didn’t have any other options. We lived two hours from the nearest town in a deserted patch of desert in Arizona. All there was in Graham County was a convenience store, a small grocery store with an overpriced, last-stop gas station, and Red’s.
The only time people came through was when the truckers started making their Christmas hauls. Even then, they didn’t put enough money into the place to make it worthwhile for them to hire anybody. So I worked at the club and leeched off of whatever poor sap wandered in.
Financially everything was covered. There were no bills to pay, nothing to get except household stuff. When my father first started getting disability, they gave him a ten-thousand-dollar check, all in one lump sum. He used it to buy a patch of land just off the freeway and a second-hand single-wide trailer.
We had a place to stay, but the ten thousand wasn’t enough to cover utility hookups, so when I would get home at night and pull up in front of the crumbling white hunk of aluminum, I had to jump out and pull a hose from the trunk of my car so I could replace the gas in the generator.
I could hear my father snoring through the thin metal wall which was only drowned out after I started the generator and the sound of the engine ripped through the air. I still had to be careful when I opened up the front door or else he would wake up.
When I passed the front window, I could see him sitting up, sleeping on the couch with his head rested against the arm. Just the thought of the slimy beast with his eyes following me made a shiver run down my neck.
The door opened with a pop and he jumped, sending a rancid cloud of body odor spewing out from his yellowed tank top. I watched his round face move from left to right while he smacked his lips, but his eyes didn’t open. Instead, he leaned to the side.
I carefully stepped up to the door and pushed aside the pile of trash so I could walk in. I had no idea where all the garbage came from but every night there seemed to be more. The floor was always littered with everything from old beer cans to styrofoam soda cups, and everything was plastered with old rolled cigarette butts.
I had given up trying to clean up after him long ago, but the irony of the whole situation was that I seemed to be the only one who suffered. He didn’t notice or he just didn’t care.
The front room smelled like rancid piss and body odor. The air was so thick with it that the stench drove itself up inside my nostrils and stuck there. I could never get rid of it.
He was sitting in the epicenter of the trash pile surrounded by paper plates and old malt liquor bottles, wearing nothing but a tank top and crusty boxer shorts. He only got off the couch when he absolutely needed to, and never bathed.
His arm jerked when I walked through to the hallway. I stopped. The floor creaked. I had a sudden urge to jump through the hall straight to my room.
He lifted his head and tilted it in my direction.
I jolted forward and prepared myself. I planned on running into my room before he saw me.
His head dropped and he went back to snoring, so I relaxed and started walking back to my room. I was exhausted.
“D’you get my cigarettes?” A deep, husky voice sprung out of the living room.
I pulled the plastic bag of loose tobacco out of my purse and waded through the trash to hand it to him. When I reached out, he grabbed my arm and grunted. “See you got that makeup on. Smell too. Where you been?”
“That’s none of your fucking business,” I tore my wrist away from him. Then I turned around and took a step forward.
He rose up, releasing a wave of stench from the couch below him. No sooner had I smelled it then I felt him behind me. “You don’t talk to me like that, you little bitch.”
“Fuck you.” I lunged for my room and locked the door.
I could hear his feet pounding down the hall. He was going to ram the door. It would give easily underneath his weight. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, but if I stayed there was no way of knowing what he would do.
I grabbed my things and hopped out the window. Halfway down the driveway, I heard the door crash open.
“Hey!” He shrieked. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going!?”
I ignored him and jumped into my car. When I peeled out onto the highway, I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was going to do. I just knew that I was never going back there again.